Dozens protest reading cuts at PUSD meeting
Popular Barton program could be dropped next year
A reading program on the chopping block drew an overflow crowd to the Pleasanton school board meeting Tuesday night, spilling out from the boardroom and into the hall and entryway.
The crowd, all wearing green "reading is fundamental" stickers, pleaded for the board to save the Barton Reading Program, which has trained volunteer tutors and a staff member working one on one with elementary school students who have problems reading. More than a dozen spoke, including some of the students currently in the program.
"If you can't read, you can't succeed," said Ed McGovern, a retired pediatrician who told the board he himself has a mild form of dyslexia.
Nancy Dunbarton, a volunteer Barton facilitator at Foothill High School, told the board her son went through the program with great results.
"I don't understand how anything to do with reading is on the cut list," Dunbarton said, calling Barton an "amazing" intervention program. "Reading is everything. It's the basis of whatever everything else is about."
Emmeline Chen called on the board to make cuts to administration.
"I encourage you to sacrifice at the district level. I implore you -- see what else there is to be cut," she said, asking management to give up some of their salaries and noting that, unlike administrators, Barton volunteers don't get car allowances.
While Barton appears at the top of the cut list, Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi told the crowd that the cuts are not in priority order.
The pleas brought a mixed reaction from the board, with board President Joan Laursen in favor of making the proposed cuts as they are, members Jeff Bowser and Chris Grant encouraging people to support the program through donations, and members Jamie Hintzke and Valerie Arkin asking staff to find other cuts.
"Anything we cut, we do risk it not coming back," Arkin said.
A list of cuts with some potential new proposals is expected to be passed at the board's Feb. 28 meeting.
Ahmadi, filling in for Luz Cazares, assistant superintendent of business services, briefed the board on state budget reductions, which at best would cost the district $150,000 and at worst could mean about $5.5 million in cuts. The difference depends on the passage of Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed referendum on tax increases in November. The district must send out layoff notices based on the worst-case scenario.
Some jobs could be restored by the Pleasanton Partnerships In Education (PPIE), which brought in about $300,000 from its most recent fundraising drive. The amount donated was down from the more than $373,000 raised last year, meaning some of the programs restored through the current school year won't be funded for the 2012-13 school year.
PPIE, after discussions with parents, teachers and administrators, decided to fund two hours of technology specialists and one reading specialist for elementary schools at a cost of $186,000, three hours of middle school technology specialists at a cost of $56,000, and it donated $44,000 to the high schools for technology, which will be divided based on student population and spent at the discretion of the principals.
Sandy Piderit, a former candidate for the school board, told the board there's a push for a November ballot initiative to create a dedicated fund for schools that could not be diverted for other state purposes and would be locally controlled. Proponents of the idea, called "Our Children, Our Future," are gathering signatures now.
In other business, a search and seizure policy that could bring drug dogs onto the district's three high schools got its first hearing Tuesday night. Kevin Johnson, senior director of pupil services, worked with the California School Board Association to come up with language that would allow for the dogs, but bumped language that could allow the district to install metal detectors.
The proposed policy brought some disagreement about the possibility of setting a maximum number of times a year the dogs could visit any campus. Arkin wanted to set a maximum of eight times a year.
"It would give assurance that we're not going to be bringing in the dogs every chance we get," she said. The idea got support from Hintzke and Laursen, although Laursen wanted a larger number of allowable visits.
Bowser, however, disagreed.
"It sounds like you want to provide assurances," he said, "but in our policy searches are defined. What is it you're trying to protect the students from?"
Ahmadi settled the matter by telling board members that the searches would not be a matter of course.
"I think setting a maximum number is irrelevant," Ahmadi said. "As a superintendent, I would not approve one every week. I'm hoping the community will trust us in making good decisions, knowing that our intention isn't to do this every time we have a chance to do it."
Parking lot searches included in the policy also got questioned by Hintzke. She pointed out that while students at Amador Valley High School aren't allowed to go to their cars during school, Foothill students can come and go from their parking lots.
Johnson said restricting students from the parking lots at Foothill would be more difficult because the layout of the school is different than at Amador. He said the idea of closing the Foothill lots during the day has been discussed with Principal John Dwyer who resisted the idea because he didn't want to punish students who hadn't done anything wrong.
Arkin also questioned language in the policy that allowed administrators to search student desks, worrying that contraband discovered in a search might not belong to the student at the desk at that time; Johnson said, as is the case with drug detection dogs, that every student gets the opportunity to present her or his side of the case.
Arkin also brought up that the proposed policy allows for searches at school events, which, she said, was not discussed when drug detection dogs were first brought up as an idea.
The policy is expected to be approved at the Feb. 28 board meeting.
Board members also got a detailed view of how different minority groups are performing on state tests. Some district schools are on improvement plans to increase scores for specific subgroups, and the data is being used to tailor programs at different schools to address students who are below proficient or well below proficient in math and English.
Piderit was the sole speaker at the board's public hearing on what the district and Association of Pleasanton Teachers (APT) will bring up during contract negotiations.
"It's going to be a tough bargaining year. I'm glad you're reopening benefits," she said, adding she supports the idea of phasing out lifetime health benefits for retirees.
The district will bring issues about retirement benefits, hours of employment, class sizes, salaries and the school calendar to the bargaining table, while APT wants to negotiate on reassignments and transfers, health and welfare benefits, salaries, retirement benefits and the school calendar.
The board unanimously approved a complicated formula that would be used to decide on layoffs and to break ties from teachers with the same length of service, but squabbled over the relatively minor issue of appointing the two members to serve on the board governance committee, which could make changes to how the agenda is formatted. Hintzke and Arkin wanted to be appointed, but Laursen and Bowser wanted Laursen to be one of those appointed. Grant suggested that the issue be discussed before the entire board and that was unanimously approved.